Stolen Art

Simon Backès

Canada 2009, 58min.

EARLY THIS SUMMER the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival ran for the 12th year in a row, featuring 266 public screenings and showcasing over 170 distinguished Canadian and international documentaries for 11 days in Toronto cinemas. This latest edition marked the festival’s most successful year, as audience numbers soared to an estimated 122,000, almost twice as many as last year.

This year Hot Docs continued their new section, called NEXT, as part of their diverse documentary program. This featured a selection of documentaries that explore the creative process in the visual arts, opening up a space of mystery and obscenity – from the sleazy sex clubs of Japan to Internet bondage, from artful advertising and a fraudulent exhibition to musical tours and hidden sonic treasures.

WHO OWNS ART? The artist or the beholder? Is something more beautiful when shared collectively? And if reappropriated, lost or found, does the intention or the spirit change?

These comprise the central questions examined in two of the documentaries that screened in NEXT: Simon Backès’ Stolen Art and Klaas Bense’s Diary of a Times Square Thief. Both of these films deals in their own way with the ambiguous identities of two artists whose work ends up in the hands of curious speculators.

Both directors, Backès and Bense, are on a detective’s mission to unveil the artists behind the work. In Stolen Art Backès explores the mystery that surrounded the New York art exhibition of that same title in 1978. The show exhibited works by a Czech painter, Pavel Novak, who crafted uncannily precise renditions of famous works by Courbet, Van Gogh, Malevich and Rembrandt. Soon a er the opening of Novak’s Stolen Art show, it was discovered that the Courbet reproduction of The Calm Sea was in fact the original. The FBI closed the exhibition and without another word uttered about Stolen Art, Pavel Novak – artist, outlaw, and brilliant forger – disappeared without a trace.

Backès’ film tracks several of the paintings listed in the Stolen Art catalogue to examine how Novak managed to reproduce such works at a distance. Was he possessed by the painter’s spirit – painting from memory and fragments? Were the paintings in the galleries indeed the originals, or did Novak manage to make a switch?

Everyone should have a masterpiece.

Through Backès’ interviews with museum owners and specialists, two consistent points emerge: firstly, no one is very familiar with the Novak scandal, and no one wishes to discuss it, and secondly, reproduced art is without spiritual connection.

This stance is eloquently challenged by an art dealer: “Buying a fake is buying a dream” he says. “Why should there be only one? Lets make thousands – everyone should have a masterpiece.”

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